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Donald Sterling: The Punishment Fits the Crime

Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been fined $2.5 million and banned from attending National Basketball Association events for life as a result of his offensive racial comments, recorded by his girlfriend and somehow released to the world. Additionally, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he will approach other owners in the league about forcing Sterling to sell his franchise.

This is the second time in a week that someone has hanged themselves on their own racially offensive words. Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling have little in common, one a rancher, the other a multi-millionaire mogul. But, what they share is something that is more common than the rest of us would like to admit: America still has its share of bigots and racists, people who hold attitudes that are not only deeply offensive. The strange thing is that neither man seems to realize just how offensive his words were or how out of touch with America as it exists today. Mr. Bundy does not seem like the brightest bulb on the ranch, but what is Mr. Sterling’s excuse? (Perhaps he thought his girlfriend, who appears to be about one-third his age, really loved him for who he is, and would defend him no matter what.) You do not become a zillionaire without some smarts. But, there are varieties of intelligence and moral intelligence is often as lacking in the boardroom as it is out at the Ponderosa. This is not news to the rest of us.

What was news to the rest of us was that Mr. Sterling has a history of racially inflammatory deeds. He has been taken to court multiple times for his unwillingness to rent properties to blacks, evidently preferring Asian tenants, but those legal challenges were settled out of court and such settlements usually come with a gag order. People “knew” what they could not “prove,” which is not uncommon in civil courts or, for the matter, at Catholic judicial tribunals trying to determine the validity of a marriage. People in Los Angeles apparently knew much of this history. Yet, there was the local chapter of the NAACP all set to give him a lifetime achievement award. They have some ‘splaining to do as well.

It is interesting to see how black Americans view these events differently. I can scarcely imagine the outrage of Chris Paul, who is not only one of the Clippers’ stars, but the head of the players’ union and a black man. (Okay, attacking blacks when your star is black and also the head of the players’ union, maybe Sterling just is dumb.) But, my housemate, who is black, said something that stuck with me last night: “So, he refuses to rent to blacks for years, and everyone turns a blind eye. But, once he gets caught saying something outrageous, everyone turns into a Victorian lady.” He is on to something. We Americans tend to look away at behavior we may think reprehensible but which doesn’t concern us immediately unless there is the kind of media firestorm we have seen in the past days on account of the taped conversations being released.

I care much less that a man harbors ugly thoughts or speaks ugly words on the phone with his girlfriend. I care a great deal about racial discrimination in the real estate market and so should you. The racial animus that persists in this country will only be overcome when our neighborhoods are more, not less, multi-racial, when we care more about how a neighbor tends her lawn or speaks to his children than what color his or her skin is. I am blessed to live in a very diverse neighborhood, but many enclaves in America remain all one race. It is simply harder to harbor racial hatred when you see someone of a different race every morning, say hello, inquire how they survived the heavy winds, watch their children pat your dog, and be neighborly. What matters is how they behave as people not their race. But, there are still too many neighborhoods that are exclusive and restricted, as Auntie Mame was told about the fictional Mountebank in Connecticut. Then, it was Jews as well as blacks, and sometimes Catholics, who were barred by real estate covenants. Now, the racial bias is carried by markets, not covenants, but the bias is just as real and the effects are just as pernicious.

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The good news is that actions like those taken by the NBA’s Commissioner, Adam Silver, send a powerful message to the culture: Racism is wrong and unacceptable and it will be punished. Silver’s press conference was an example for all who have to face the press: He was clear, forceful, and succinct. The penalties seem appropriate, especially the remaining penalty, forcing Sterling to sell his team. NBA players routinely face fines and suspensions when they behave inappropriately and the NBA owners should not be held to a lesser standard. Let us all hope that Sterling, and Bundy, and all who think as they do, will walk off-stage and, God willing, have a change of heart. Whether they have a change of heart or not, at least we will no longer have to observe their bigotry.

Let’s give the final, all sublime, word to Gilbert & Sullivan:

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October 10-23, 2014

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